Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us
A Denver Journal Review by Denver Seminary Professor Douglas Groothuis
Andrew Keen, Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us. New York: Saint Martin’s Press. 256 pages. Hardback ISBN-10: 0312624980; ISBN-13: 978-0312624989.
Like every “Age,” the Internet Age, the Digital Age (or whatever moniker is now popular) needs its contrarians, curmudgeons, and skeptics. Cheerleaders for new technologies are easy to find in America, and there may be lot of money in it. But careful and hesitant analysts are rarer and usually less popular. Their oppositional stance does not guarantee their correctness, but it is often a needed antidote to utopianism or willful ignorance. We should always be on guard for those who are “always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7; see also Hosea 4:6).
Andrew Keen is a knowledgeable and clever analyst of the Internet. His first book, Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture (Crown Business, 2007), lamented the loss of high standards for knowledge. When everyone can comment somewhere on the Internet (this is the heart of Web 2.0), the notion of an expert or seasoned critic can be lost in a sea of untethered, unaccountable, and uncredentialed opinion. While many laud “crowdsourcing” and the rallying of mass opinion through the Internet (especially Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everybody [Penguin, 2009]), Keen had his doubts, as do I. Now, Keen, who is an active participant on-line, continues his critique. Taking his cue from the plot of the classic (if creepy) film, “Vertigo,” Keen argues that the digital world is colonizing culture in too many ways, thus undermining our identities and our security. This leads to a condition of digital dizziness: we cannot get our bearings on life because we are over-connected and unanchored.
Keen is especially concerned with the mentality of Facebook, and particularly that of its young founder and president, Mark Zuckerberg. Keen denies the ideal of offering so many facts about oneself on line for others (anyone, really) to inspect. Common sense tells us that more discretion is in order. People with bad motives can use our information for nefarious purposes. Only God is perfectly trustworthy knower concerning every detail of our lives. As David writes:
You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely. You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain (Psalm 139:1-6).
However, people will argue that it is not “too wonderful” for us; we can attain it (or approximate it) through the Internet. They are dead wrong, and it matters.
Further, one can become overexposed. But not according to Zuckerberg, a man who sets the sensibilities of millions of people globally. Keen does not mention this, but another book, by Katherine Losse, The Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network (Free Press, 2012) informs us that the multi-billionaire founder of Facebook does not read books. Thus, he is an ignoramus on the things that matter most. Thus, an ignoramus is setting the sensibilities of millions upon millions of people. That is worth pondering—as is spending some extended time off of Facebook.
Like not a few others, Keen laments the paradox that the more “connected” we become through Facebook, texting, Twitter, and the like, the more alone and alienated we become. This point is more thoroughly made in Sherry Tuckle’s study, Alone Together : Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Basic Books, 2011), but Keen is right. Consider a scene in which a small group of young adults or teenagers are congregated only to waste the possible community by staring into and madly punching their hand-held electronic devices. They may even be texting each other. It happens all the time. Being “connected” through disembodied data is not the same as being with someone in an unmediated environment (which are increasingly rare, unhappily). Consider the Apostle John’s comment on this:
I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face (3 John 13-14; emphasis added).
Being with someone profitably in a face-to-face conversation or in conversational prayer demands concentration, sensitivity, and love. All of these are easily bypassed through emails, tweets, texts, and other cyber-blasts. There is far more ego-casting, image mongering, and factoid-feasting on line than genuine community, which requires worthwhile work
How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! (Psalm 133:1)
I have one complaint concerning style. Keen’s provocative and sometimes frightening book is well-documented; in fact, it is over-documented. Nary a paragraph goes by without one or more quotations from other sources. This tends to smother the authorial voice and outsource it too readily to other writers. One can easily paraphrase a writer and give the source for the idea in an endnote. But Keen’s book sometimes appears more as a collection of quotes—albeit generally good ones—than as a discrete and unique piece of work. But it is better to over-document sources than to under-document sources, as I often tell my students.
I have only touched on a few of Keen’s keen observations about the downside of the digital world. There are many more worth knowing. Indeed, the Internet age needs its contrarians, curmudgeons, and skeptics, and Andrew Keen is among their honorable number.
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy